If people followed those precepts, they'd avoid the hassle and expense of scammers out to make a quick buck. But Microsoft technical support scams continue to be alive and well, sticking victims with bills of between $50 and $450 for security smoke and mirrors, or sometimes perpetrating financial fraud that costs far more.
According to a 2011 Web survey of 1,298 people conducted by British consumer rights watchdog Which?, 3% of respondents said they'd allowed scammers to log onto their PC and 2% gave them money. Interestingly, 3% said they weren't sure if a technical support cold call had really been a scam or not.
Here's a hint: Cold callers offering tech support advice are scammers. Here are six recent examples of how these fraudsters operate.
1. Scammers Reuse Scripts.
The con artists behind telephone repair scams often reuse the same script, which often begins: "I'm calling from Microsoft. We've had a report from your Internet service provider of serious virus problems from your computer."
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One reader emailed Saturday to say that he'd received "an almost word for word phone call on my landline." After hanging up, he alerted his telephone company. "All they could offer was ... a call trace, and to notify my local police. Which I may pursue," he said.
2. South African Targeted By StartControl.
Another reader, a retired South African systems programmer, emailed last week to report that he'd been targeted by telephone scammers offering technical support. First, they asked him to press the Windows start button, then enter this URL: www.startcontrol.com. That took his browser to a site labeled as BeAnywhere support express, which prominently features the following message: "Please insert the reference supplied to you," with the reference referring to a six-digit PIN. "They even give you a six-digit PIN, that's where I stopped them, 19 minutes later," he said.
BeAnywhere is legitimate remote-control software. But who is Startcontrol.com? According to Alexa, Startcontrol.com has been operating for 10 years and ranks in the top 3.8 million of all websites globally. It appears that 77% of search engine traffic to the site involves Arabic speakers. A link to the website's "Termos of Service," however, lead to a "server error: 404 - File or directory not found" message.
The site's whois listing says that the domain was registered by GoDaddy, which lists the site's administrative and technical contact as being based in Portugal. But an email sent to the listed whois contact bounced back with an error message that the account didn't exist. Likewise, the telephone number listed in the whois entry appears to be bogus; a call to that number lead to BSPI - Intelligent Business Solutions. An employee at the firm said his company, which resells Sophos security products, has no affiliation with startcontrol.com, and that he'd never before heard of the company.
GoDaddy.com didn't immediately respond to an abuse report filed Friday morning for www.startcontrol.com.
3. Support Routines Might Be Real-Time Smokescreens.
One risk from allowing scammers to install software on your PC is that the "support application" might be used to disguise fraudulent activities. In April, for example, a reader emailed to say he'd been cold-called by someone claiming to be a Microsoft representative, warning that he had numerous viruses on his computer. The caller offered to remove the viruses and get the PC "running like new" for free, provided he "renew" his software.
"He then [asked] for card info which I gave him. Then I [got] an email from Western Union of a transfer of money which I did not authorize so I [checked] my account and found he had taken $882 out," said the reader. "I called Western Union about it and they said there was nothing they could do as the money was picked up and they could not give me the name of who got it."
The supposed virus-killing offer seemed to mask fraudulent activity. "He went so far as to show me all the errors he found but, while the program was supposed to be loading, my screen was black and I suspect that was when he was hitting my account," he said.